Socialism: Is it good for the poor?

Socialism: Is it good for the poor?

Re’eh | Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

The Jews are numbered among socialism’s most prominent theoreticians and the Communist Revolution was the favored cause of young Jews in the early years of the 20th century.

Why? What did Jews find so attractive about these movements? Why do Jews to this day lean leftward in their politics and advocate economic policies consistent with socialism? 

Some theorize the affinity is a response to anti-Semitism. Jews believed that they could rid themselves of the hostility others bear toward them by adopting a cause that would solve the world’s economic suffering. 

Others maintain that Jews will participate in any revolutionary movement, particularly one which promises the establishment of a “just society.” For many young Jews in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, socialism was a way of disposing of their Jewish heritage and leaving the ghetto behind. 

Another perspective entirely is that Jews find socialism attractive because they believe that it is rooted in Judaism’s concern for the poor. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, a famed socialist leader walked with a throng of admirers at his heels. They passed a beggar pleading for alms and one of the followers threw the poor man a coin. The leader turned in scorn to the follower and shouted, “Traitor!” 

The stunned and confused follower said, “I just helped a poor man; didn’t you teach us about the terrible suffering of the proletariat?” 

The leader responded, “We await the revolution. When you give alms to the poor you are delaying it. Instead of a total and final solution, you give him a momentary ‘fix.’ Therefore, you are a traitor to the cause.”

This anecdote comes from Rabbi Chaim Navon’s essay on Re’eh in “Parashot.” In it he opens with two verses which are difficult to reconcile. 

The first (Deuteronomy 15:4) appears in the context of creditors remitting debts during the sabbatical year, “There shall be no needy among you… If only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this instruction that I enjoined upon you this day.” 

The second, a mere seven verses later (15:11), reads, “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”

One verse assures us that there will be no poverty while the other verse confronts us with the sad reality that there will never cease to be “needy ones in your land.”

One simple approach to this apparent contradiction is that the first verse refers to the ideal society, one which has eliminated poverty. The second verse refers to the sad reality, knowing full well that the ideal is rarely achieved.

Rabbi Chaim Zeitchik wrote the following about this week’s parsha, “Let us not forget that charity is not just a matter of economic support. Charity demands heart. One must empathize with the poor man’s plight. One must feel his dilemma, his pain, his panic. If one sees only the poor man’s outstretched hand and does not hear the bitter cries of his heart, then he has not been charitable. How penetrating are the words of the Talmud (Bava Batra 9b): ‘He who gives a coin to the poor man deserves six blessings, but he who soothes him with words deserves eleven blessings.’” 

One reason the utopian dream of the socialist visionaries has never been realized is because they did not hear the bitter cries of a poor man’s heart.

The lesson for each of us is quite simple: True charity goes much further than writing a check or handing out 10-dollar bills. It must also consist of kind gestures, gentle smiles, and sincere words of encouragement.

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